Sensible vs. Sensitive: How to Choose the Right Word

Practical or Thin-Skinned?

Sensible and sensitive
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The adjectives "sensible" and "sensitive" come from the same origins: the Latin sensibilis, from sensus, the late Middle English, and Old French. It may be surprising, therefore, that in today's world, they have completely different meanings. While "sensible" means "practical" or "levelheaded," "sensitive" means "reactive," or "extremely aware." An archaic meaning of "sensible," however, is much closer to the contemporary meaning of "sensitive."

How to Use "Sensitive"

The most common definitions of the adjective "sensitive" are easily hurt or offended, highly perceptive, quick to respond to slight changes or differences, and concerned with secret or delicate matters. A person can also be sensitive to, for example, heat, cold, certain foods, or even emotions.

While all of these definitions refer to the human quality of being sensitive, it is also possible for plants, other animals, processes, and events to be sensitive. For example, a "sensitive test for cancer" can discover cancer cells even if there are very few of them or they are difficult to detect. A "sensitive situation" can describe an interaction that has the potential to become explosive.

In rarer situations, the word "sensitive" is also used as a noun. When that's the case, it means "a person who is likely to sense the presence of spirit influences." Sometimes a "sensitive" is believed to have access to the spirits of the dead; they may also be sensitive to the presence of angels or other spiritual entities.

How to Use "Sensible"

The most common definitions of the adjective "sensible" are, practical, reasonable, and having (or showing) good sense or sound judgment. While the term "sensible" is usually positive when applied to an individual, it can also be pejorative when the "sensible" choice is compared to the creative, exciting, or adventurous choice.

For example, "Bob made the sensible choice and became an accountant instead of joining the peace corps." 

When applied to objects rather than people, "sensible" items are often considered to be practical but unfashionable or uninteresting. "Sensible shoes," for example, are intended for comfort rather than good looks, and a "sensible dress" is usually inexpensive, easy to care for, and utterly unfashionable.

An archaic meaning of "sensible" is "aware of"; this usage was still common during the first part of the 20th century. Often, the term was used to describe the awareness of something intangible; for example, "Elizabeth was sensible of her many flaws."

Examples

The following three examples use the word "sensible" in all its meanings. In the first sentence, the word is used to mean "reasonable and appropriate." In the second sentence, it is used to mean "showing good judgment." In the last sentence, "sensible" is used in the archaic sense to mean "aware of."

  • Sticking to a sensible diet plan ensures that the weight will stay off.
  • Children on drugs often leave clues, and sensible parents will investigate when their suspicions are aroused.
  • Sensible of his patient's anxiety, Dr. Paul was careful to be reassuring.

    In the first three sentences below, "sensitive" is used as an adjective to describe highly reactive or volatile situations. In the last sentence, "sensitive" is used as a noun to describe a person with strong occult abilities.

    • An extremely sensitive person can have a severe reaction to the small amount of milk protein in a candy bar.
    • Sensitive medical equipment requires an uninterrupted supply of power.
    • A reporter at the Washington Post gained access to several highly sensitive CIA documents.
    • Sally hired a sensitive to determine whether her new house was really haunted.

    How to Remember the Difference

    The word "sensitive" is used much more often than the word "sensible," and you are likely to hear it used to negatively describe someone who overreacts to ordinary situations. For example, "She's so sensitive that she takes offense at every little thing.

    "The word "sensible" ends with the sound of "able," and a sensible person is able to make smart decisions and judgments.

    "Sense and Sensibility"

    Jane Austen's famous novel "Sense and Sensibility" uses forms of the words "sensitive" and "sensible" in the title—but the use of the word "sensibility" in this context is extremely archaic. The novel tells the story of two sisters, one of whom is reasonable and levelheaded ("sense") and the other of whom is highly emotional ("sensibility"). In Austen's time, the term "sensibility" described a person (usually a woman) who reacted almost entirely based on emotional responses; this was considered romantic at the time, but, of course, often led to poor decisions.

    Sources

    • “Sensitive vs. Sensible.” English Course Malta, 13 Dec. 2018, www.englishcoursemalta.com/learn/sensitive-vs-sensible/.
    • “Sensible/Sensitive.” – Lingolia, english.lingolia.com/en/6583.